If Hollywood could be considered a factory where they insist on cranking out sardines, Bay Area director Rob Nilsson would be the guy serving up fillet of sole.
Nilsson has been directing out-of-the-mainstream and inside-the- lifestream features for 25 years, more often than not casting nonactors in major roles, and was the first American to win both the Camera d'Or at Cannes and the Grand Prize at Sundance. Perhaps more important, he is a rabid iconoclast in the mold of his hero, director John Cassavetes. Three works from the prolific director's soulful filmography, "On the Edge," "Signal Seven" and "Heat and Sunlight," all shot in the '80s in the Bay Area, will be spun into the marketplace Feb. 8 on DVD. The latter two, early examples of what Nilsson calls direct action cinema, expose the raw nerves and improvisational backbone of his quirky style of filmmaking. "What I've tried to do with my work is strip away everything that is not necessary in a cinema frame," he says in his Berkeley studio, where he is surrounded by creative excavations of his emotions and experiences -- on the walls are his mural-size canvases, one of which is reminiscent of Picasso's "Guernica"; on his shelves, photos he shot in Nigeria in the '60s and '70s; on his desk, poetry about past loves.
"Take away all the stuff that's gloss, take away everything that isn't the essential experience," he says, "so we're left with the most important thing -- those little miracles of everyday behavior and of serendipity and of contradiction, of joy, rage, despair, intimate connection. That, to me, is what it's all about -- it's not really about a narrative. It's about who we are."
To manifest those little miracles, Nilsson has created acting workshops with open doors, attracting what he calls "a United Nations of street, hearth and odd principalities from all walks of life." His Tenderloin Action Group evolved into the Tenderloin Y Group in San Francisco and met as many as three times a week for several years beginning in 1991. That spawned a series of nine features called "9 at Night," the eighth of which, "Used," is in production now. In each, cast members invent their own dialogue and, in some cases, share story credit. An East Bay workshop, the Citizens Cinema Institute, is in the works, along with another series, "10 Films About Love."
To be sure, people don't amble in off the street and instantly find themselves eyeball to eyeball with Nilsson's zoom lens, though they just might get the impression that they've stumbled into a psychiatrist's office. It would not be unusual to find a group lying in a circle on a floor somewhere, tugging at the tender stuff locked beneath years of protective layers.
"I try to give actors experiences that happen in time before the movie begins," he says. "With guided meditation, I might even try to have a character experience being born. That doesn't always work, and it's sort of a California-type of thing, but you'd be surprised, if you give yourself to that, what wild things can happen. I try to discover the key events in their fictional characters -- when the mother died and the dad ran off to Wyoming for six months and left them with their little brother. "And then the actors will play it out. And that goes into their character memory banks, as opposed to something you told them or that they've invented themselves. I've done this for as long as two to three months, bringing people along in emotionally charged, significant experiences. "I don't want them thinking, 'Who am I?' Forget about who you are. Be the character. Experience and relate. Then we just continue to do what we've been doing.
"I have a script scenario, I write out every scene as description, it might be three, four lines, in some cases it might be 25 lines. I set up the situation for them. The camera's rolling. Now it's the movie." Nilsson claims it is harder to get actors to drop the idea of acting than it is to get someone to learn to be expressive in the service of a character.
"I've even had well-known actors freeze up, get scared, because they weren't used to improvisation. And then you have to bring out the whiskey. Well, OK, we have room for failure in our system. Why? Because we don't have any money. If we had money, we'd have to stick to a tight schedule. "When I did my first feature ("Northern Lights," 1979 winner of the Camera d'Or), everything was so expensive. Now (with digital), it doesn't cost so much and it's more transcendent, but it requires collaborative friends. I owe a lot to a lot of people who don't have a lot of money, to my friends, to workshop members, the many collaborators from the Bay Area, without whom nothing, nothing, would have happened. Without them I'd just be someone whistling in the wind.
"It would be great to get some dough back to people, but if not, I think there's been enough fun most of us have had -- and the expectation has not been to go to Hollywood and be like them. There was nothing there to envy."
Nilsson, who, at 65, still sports Scandinavian good looks and occasionally takes on an acting role (he had the lead in "Heat and Sunlight"), was invited to work in Japan, where he made "Winter Oranges"; Jordan, where he did "SAMT"; and South Africa, where he directed "Frank." True to form, casting came from the locals. In each country, he says, he went "to find what the movie was."
"First we explore what's happening in the place," he says. "Then the people are usually gathered through a local sponsoring organization like a film festival or an arts group. So we'll select 20 or 21 people, and I have no idea what I'm going to do with them. We start by introducing ourselves, and a whole lot comes out because usually people don't even have someone to hear a five-minute summary of their lives. Nobody cares. Just the mere fact that you're there and you're able to do that with others is a start and, oftentimes, it's cathartic."
The director's first forays into his method filmmaking resulted in "Signal Seven," about the struggles of a nocturnal group of San Francisco cabbies, and "Heat and Sunlight," his most personal film, about jealousy fueling the destruction of a relationship. Francis Coppola lent his name to the former, which became the first small-format video blown up to 35mm for theatrical release. The latter won the top prize at Sundance.
Nilsson credits Cassavetes' 1959 film "Shadows" with sending him down this path. "I didn't really understand there was anything interesting about cinema until I saw 'Shadows,' and then I thought, 'Oh! So it can be about us.' Well, if it's about us, who the hell are we? And that became the only thing that mattered to me.
"The first thing I'd tell any upcoming filmmaker: Don't make any films -- just go and read for the next four years. And if you can find beautiful, powerful relationships with women, or men, whatever you're into, that's the training, that's the meat of it, those relationships that just ratchet you around with such power and intensity.
"Film should be a search, an investigation of things that you find fascinating and pertinent. Maybe that's just so obvious that it's banal, but I don't see it in most of American cinema. It's either about genres, or it's about stars, or it's about goofy little stories that are meant to entertain. .. . I can't entertain anybody. I can hardly entertain myself. All I can do is follow my passions."
“WINTER ORANGES” by Rob Nilsson is available at his Web site, www.robnilsson.com. Thesite also has information about Nilsson’s newsletter.
Sunday, January 30, 2005 (SF Chronicle)